Embarrassment over Stormont Executive’s shameful failiure to support UK wide free speech and libel reform

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I’m obliged to Jeff Dudgeon for drawing attention to the latest failure by the Executive. It has come to light that the Stormont powers that be failed to agree on bringing Northern Ireland into line with the English Defamation Bill and so bring much needed reform to the libel laws – if the Bill isn’t messed up by confusing the issues with the quite distinct ones of  press regulation and the Leveson agenda.

No reason was given apparently. The Bill’s main plank is to create a public interest defence against libel.

Among others, the Bill would make the following major changes:

  • Create a test of “serious harm” for statements to be considered defamatory.
  • Abolish the common law defences of fair comment, justification and Reynolds privilege, and place them on a statutory footing.
  • Create a new statutory privilege for peer-reviewed scientific and academic publications and provide greater protection to online entities.
  • Amend the existing law of qualified privilege to include reports of scientific conferences and press conferences.

 

The Scottish government,  at least as proud as ours and with rather more reason and even though it’s seeking independence, saw no threat to its dignity by allowing  the Bill to apply to Scotland. Why on earth not us too?

This leaves Northern Ireland isolated in the UK.

A case of everybody out of step except our wee Sammy?

So was it opposition to press freedom,  over sensitivity about local prerogatives and another example of refusing to going along with Westminster, exagerrated respect for the skills of Belfast libel lawyer Paul Tweed,   plain failure to understand and not caring anyway, or what? Should we not be told?

Report extract

However, it has now emerged at Parliament that the Stormont Executive has refused permission for the law to extend to Northern Ireland. When asked why it had made that decision, Stormont’s Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) said that it had “considered” extending one clause in the new Bill to Northern Ireland but the Executive had been unable to come to a decision.

The issue came to light after Ulster peer Lord Rana asked the Government about the issue in the House of Lords and questioned the implications of two separate libel regimes for publications which circulate throughout the United Kingdom.

Responding for the Government in  a written answer on 25 Februaury, Lord Newby said that as the law on defamation was devolved, the Government had consulted the Stormont Executive about the possibility of the Assembly passing a legislative consent motion – which allows Westminster to legislate on an issue on behalf of Stormont – but “in the event, no such extension was sought”.

Leading Belfast lawyer Brian Garrett said that he was troubled by the possibility of two substantively different libel laws throughout the United Kingdom. The former part-time judge told the News Letter: “I think that Northern Ireland either comes into line with a modern law or it will be very unfortunate. It would be unhelpful to scholarship, free and open journalism and all sorts of things of that kind.
“For that reason, I think that it is a high priority that this should be looked at and we should get on with it.
The former chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party said that there had been “such a poor legislative programme” at Stormont but it seemed that “it hasn’t been given any thought” by the Executive. He added: “That worries me.”

 

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  • http://www.patrickkane.co.uk Patrick Kane

    The Puttnam amendment aside, it beggars belief that the Bill shouldn’t be supported in some form, at least, by Stormont. Not just the public interest defence against libel, but the extension of qualified privilege for scientific papers and quotes at conferences, the reduction of costs, the libel tourism restriction, the need for serious harm…

    I’ve written a little bit about it here:

    http://www.patrickkane.co.uk/northern-ireland-and-the-defamation-bill-a-missed-opportunity/

  • Lionel Hutz

    What if some things that may be in the public interest are not being said because the libel laws as they are make it too risky?

    I’ll just leave that out there

  • Comrade Stalin

    Lionel, do you reckon this means that NI will become a libel tourism hotspot ?

  • Ruarai

    Good question Comrade Stalin.

    Anyone have Nick Cohen’s number handy?

  • Lionel Hutz

    Comrade,

    I hope so. Give me something to do seeing as your party leader is trying to take away about half my work……

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    On another thread I stated that the unionist idea of democracy amounted to majority rule and that unionists were divorced from contemporary British culture i.e. the culture of Britain (not of that other part of the UK).. Drumlins said that I didn’t know anything about unionists. I think this just illustrates my point.

  • News_Meister

    Oh how readily the Tory Government submit to their press baron and Editor bed-fellows.
    IMO, no more concessions should be given to the press after their outrageous abuses not least in relation to the case of missing child Madeleine McCann; the worst ever press abuse case.
    It’s absurd, the press demanded changes to the Human Rights Act and a new Defamation Bill but spuriously scream state interference with regard to Lord Leveson’s sensible minimum statutory underpinning recommendation.

  • newgal

    But where exactly is all of the embarrassment mentioned in the title of this thread to be located and identified?

    People associated with the Executive parties don’t seem to be embarrassed, acounting for the overwhelming number of our elected legislators, nor do I suspect that it will matter two jots to the vast majority of people who voted for them.

    For my part not a single member of my family, not a single friend or acquaintance that I have spoken to since this came to light has spoken of even the mildest embarassment at this.

    The truth is that there is not the slightest indication of the merest shadow of embarrassement at this.

  • brian2013

    Private Eye has previously pointed out Ian Paisely Jnr’s enthusiastic opposition to the bill in the Commons, which (by their analysis) included extolling the skills of Mr Tweed to the extent that it sounded a bit like a free advertisement for members.

    The Hansard record is available here
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm120612/debtext/120612-0002.htm

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks for that ray of light, newgal.

  • newgal

    Hi David: and thanks for your very kind comments.

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    In 1983 Time magazine published an article that claimed that Ariel Sharon had plotted with the Phalangist leaders before the Sabra and Chatilla massacres. Sharon sued Time for libel in New York, where its headquarters is located. Sharon won the factual argument when the article’s Israeli author was unable to provide any proof. But he couldn’t collect because under American libel law a public figure has to prove actual malice on the part of the person or company being sued. So Sharon then sued Time in Israel using the American judgement as part of the case and won under Israeli law, which like most European countries does not require the person suing to prove actual malice. The victory revived Sharon’s political career and the journalist who wrote the article became the bete noire of the Israeli press corps. I think American libel law should be changed to allow for guilt by negligence–i.e. the media should have to demonstrate a good reason why they got something factually wrong that is harmful to someone’s reputation if they are to avoid paying damages.

  • http://www.openunionism.com oneill

    The Scottish government, at least as proud as ours and with rather more reason and even though it’s seeking independence, saw no threat to its dignity by allowing the Bill to apply to Scotland.

    Salmond’s commitment to freedom of speech and transparency is not *that* cast iron (as anyone following Scottish politics would be able to tell you)-

    http://www.scotsman.com/news/scotland-set-for-draconian-press-controls-1-2839821

  • Seamuscamp

    Isn’t the breast-beating somewhat premature? It isn’t yet clear what the Bill will actually look like or even whether it will survive as an Act. Despite what P Kane says in his blog, the Puttnam amendments are actually a cross-party initiative that would have no chance of success without substantial LibDem, Crossbench and Tory support. Mr Cameron, in his latest taking-home-of-the-ball mode, threatens to withdraw the Bill unless it reverts to his idea of what it should contain. That, to me, seems a perfectly sound excuse for the prevaricators at Stormont to sit on their hands.

    B Walker says “The Scottish government, at least as proud as ours and with rather more reason and even though it’s seeking independence, saw no threat to its dignity by allowing the Bill to apply to Scotland “. Wrong – according to P Kane. He says the Scots have agreed to the clauses that relate to scientific papers etc. Not quite “the Bill”.

    Again, B Walker claims that no reason was given. That seems not to be true. The reason given was that there had been no prior consultation and that an inadequate time limit for response was imposed. B Walker may consider that an inadequate, but it is at least rational. Why wasn’t there pre-consultation; what would the basis of the consultation have been; why a tight timetable?

    John Bull: What do you think?
    Seanin: About what?
    John Bull: What do you think?
    Seanin: Dunno.
    John Bull: Time’s up!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Brian2013 for the link. Anyone who has even glanced over David Gordon’s book “The Fall of the House of Paisley” will see right away just where Ian Og is coming from with all this.

    But the real gem is on of his quotes: “It was Oscar Wilde who said that the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” I imagine Jeff Dudgeon might just remember a few comments Ian og made about the gay community in general a few years ago, for which he was reprimanded! (Junior minister attacking minorities that his fathers DFMdFM were bound to protect.) But any ship in a storm I suppose.